Sandstone Canyon Solitude

I first visited this canyon on the border of Utah and Colorado eight years ago. The adventure was suggested by my friend J, who I had met when we both worked as interpretive rangers for the Clear Creek ranger district back in 2009.

On our inaugural trip, we descended into this rarely visited wilderness area to discover a spectacular red-rock canyon, complete with desert bighorn sheep, elk, golden eagles, arches, minimal signage or trails, and expansive patches of cryptobiotic soil. We basked in the warm spring sunshine while relishing our solitude, quoting Abbey as we wandered wide-eyed down the sandy washes until, eventually, we reached the Colorado River.

Now, eight years later, we returned to repeat the trip.

Above: Looking North-west towards the Colorado River.

Below Left: A curious combination of sticky mud and snow. Below Right: Canyon country is an environment of extremes.

 

Pungent herbal sage carried on the wind and filled my nostrils. Red sandstone reflects the brilliant, searing sunlight and fades into long crimson shadows washing across this burnt landscape.

Above: Drying out a damp sleeping bag in camp. We utilized this fire ring which we found. To have the smallest impact, it is advised that you do not create new fire rings in wilderness areas.

Below: A starry evening and headlamp trails. The next day, we dropped into the canyon.

 

Above: J’s morning routine.

Below: The author, making some coffee in the comfort of his sleeping bag.

Above: I like to keep meals simple on the trail: boil water, wait 10 minutes, eat.

Below: Descending through layers of sandstone.

 

A single raven croaks as she floats along the canyon walls above, following the undulating curved rock, carved by a river hundreds of feet above me and countless years before my time. While I don’t belong here, I long to be here, grasped by the embrace of the magnetic glow and ancient sands and the secrets that no humans will ever truly understand.

Filled with an immense emptiness that is impossible to describe in words, I am content with my loss. And I think it wise not to speak; so instead, I listen.

Above: The canyons have many surprises for us, this time a sandstone arch.

Below Left: Filtering water. Below Right: Taking a break at a water source—notice the four liters of water strapped to the top of my pack.

A wonderful, perfect solitude fills my soul and heart to overflowing but empties my mind—an elegant magic trick performed by this clever landscape.

Above: We don’t make hot lunches often, but sometimes a little bit of extra fuel is necessary on longer-mileage days.

Below Left: Preparing materials for a primitive bow-drill fire. Below Right: This technique relies on friction to create an ember.

Below: Where there’s smoke, soon there will be fire.

Above: Darkness descends on camp, but our fire keeps things warm.

Below: Notice the lack of a fire ring—we chose a sterile section of sand to have our fire. The next morning, after making sure it was completely out, we dispersed the remaining charcoal and naturalized the site, leaving no trace of our activity. Don’t build fires on bare rock.

Above: Our “low” camp in the canyon, perched on a bench above the floodplain of the river.

Below: The desert is one of the best places to enjoy the low pack weight of a sil-nylon flat tarp.

 

This canyon, at this time and place, is perfectly and completely unremarkable. But in that reality lies beauty and value that is immeasurable.

Above: A successful trip results in smiles and good memories.

When he's not publishing campervan content or gear reviews on ExPo, Matt Swartz is honing his paragliding skills, hiking a 14er, or exploring the backroads of Colorado. His love of travel has seen him bike across the United States, as well as explore more exotic destinations like the Amazon basin and Patagonia. Matt spent three years living in a 1964 RV with his partner, Amanda. He's worked as an Interpretive Ranger and Wildland Firefighter and his photography and writing has been published in Rova Magazine, the Leatherman blog, 'Hit The Road' by Gestalten Publishing, and Forbes.